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Uncommon Knowledge

Happy people buckle up

And more surprising insights from the social sciences

Avoid unhappy drivers

Is reckless automotive behavior driven by your being a wreck? That’s the conclusion of a recent study, which found that Americans who were less satisfied with their lives were less likely to wear a seat belt; they were also more likely to be in a car accident later in life. This wasn’t just about some rebels without a cause who liked to live dangerously. The results held up even when controlling for sex, age, race, marital status, education, employment, and income, and when comparing seat-belt-wearing behavior before and after widowhood.

 Goudie, R. et al., “Happiness as a Driver of Risk-Avoiding Behaviour: Theory and an Empirical Study of Seatbelt Wearing and Automobile Accidents,” Economica (forthcoming).

More religious, less moral

Religion can be a force for good. But apparently we’re more impressed when people are good without relying on that force. In a series of experiments, a psychologist with the University of Kentucky found that Americans judged a religious person to have less intent, less responsibility, and less morality in doing good deeds, compared to a nonreligious person. These attributions were made by both nonreligious and religious judges.

Gervais, W., “Good for God? Religious Motivation Reduces Perceived Responsibility for and Morality of Good Deeds,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (forthcoming).

Monarch & son

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It’s hard out there for an all-powerful ruler. You have to worry constantly about being overthrown. You also have to think about the order of succession. If a king or dictator arranges for a peer to be his successor, the successor may overthrow him prematurely so that the successor isn’t too old or dead when the current ruler dies. On the other hand, if succession is left open, the ruler can’t guarantee his legacy, and the uncertainty may handicap his reign. The solution, according to political scientists, is to have the first-born son inherit the throne: “We test our hypothesis on a dataset covering 961 monarchs ruling 42 European states between 1000 and 1800, and show that fewer monarchs were deposed in states practicing primogeniture than in states practicing alternative succession orders.” The advantage of primogeniture is that the ruler’s offspring can ensure the legacy of the regime, but they have time to be patient. So successful was the strategy that “In 1801 all European monarchies had adopted primogeniture or succumbed to foreign enemies.”

 Kokkonen, A. & Sundell, A., “Delivering Stability — Primogeniture and Autocratic Survival in European Monarchies 1000–1800,” American Political Science Review (forthcoming).

Uncertain? Pat this

Are you anxious about the future? It’s a perfectly reasonable response to go buy yourself a stuffed animal. A new study finds that people who read about an uncertain state of affairs were subsequently more disposed to choose a softer object over a harder object. The researchers found that this self-comfort through soft objects works in reverse order, too: Using a soft-grip pen or feeling soft fabric subsequently allowed people to better deal with uncertainty.

 Van Horen, F. & Mussweiler, T., “Soft Assurance: Coping with Uncertainty Through Haptic Sensations,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist.
He can be reached at kevin.lewis.ideas@gmail.com.
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